On Teresa Lewis and the Problem of Capital Punishment

Last night, Teresa Lewis was executed in Virginia.  The news stories I’ve seen all lead with the rarety of the death penalty being applied to a woman: Lewis was the first woman executed since 2005, and only the 12th in the 34 years since the death penalty was reinstated.  There are questions about whether Lewis’ execution will lead the way to more women on death row being executed, but that’s not the most salient piece of the story.  What matters more are the circumstances of her case and whether they merited the sentence received.

There is no question that Lewis was guilty of being involved in a conspiracy that resulted in the killing of her husband and stepson.  Along with two male accomplices, Lewis helped plan a double murder, apparently for the purpose of collecting the money from the victims’ life insurance policies.  Prosecutors described Lewis as a “black widow” who married her husband knowing that she could then benefit from his murder, and they labeled her the “mastermind” of the conspiracy.  Various factors call that storyline into question, like Lewis’ IQ, which defense attorneys said bordered on the level for mental retardation.  There’s also the extremely strange fact that, of the three people involved in the crime, Lewis was the only one who received the death penalty– the other two men, who actually shot the victims, received life sentences.

There is no upside to this story.  It was an ugly crime, and unlike in some other controversial death penalty cases, it is clear that Lewis was guilty.  It is much, much less clear whether her guilt merited capital punishment.

In addition to capital punishment opponents, her case attracted attention from a diverse group, including the European Union and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, both of whom opposed the sentence (the EU makes sense, but I’m really confused about Ahmadinejad, who as far as I know had no similar objection to the recent stoning sentence for a woman convicted of adultery in his own country).  John Grisham also weighed in, writing an eloquent op-ed in the Washington Post earlier this month, in which he decried the inconsistencies in the law: “as in so many capital cases, the imposition of a death sentence had little do with fairness.”

And of course, this is the big problem with capital punishment in general.  It was while reading a Grisham novel that I discussed this issue with my dad a few years ago, and he explained that the Oklahoma City bombing was what made him a death penalty proponent.  I think I understand this reasoning, and I think that most of us could think of a particularly heinous case that we would conclude merits a death sentence.  The problem is that the cases we picked wouldn’t all be unanimous–probably far from it.  In the Lewis case, it’s impossible for me to say whether she or her co-conspirators were guilty of a more serious crime.  As with the justice system in general, there is no simple way to reduce suspects and sentencing to simple math, no way to easily say whether mitigating factor X outweighs aggravating factor Z.

Given all this, even if we set aside the issue of innocent people dying as a result of capital punishment, how could it ever be possible to come up with a fair method for applying the death penalty?  And if it isn’t possible, why on earth is it still legal?

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